The Chinese Super League starts a new season on Friday and has, despite an attempt by the domestic game’s regulators to curb spending, set a new spending record of US$410 million over the winter transfer window.
The free spending started in December, when Shanghai SIPG broke the Asian transfer record by plucking Oscar from Chelsea – where he had been sidelined from the first team – and paid a market-skewing US$63 million for the Brazilian.
Argentina’s ex-Manchester United forward Carlos Tevez followed with a reported US$90 million transfer to Shanghai Shenhua, where he became the highest paid player in the world with an eye-popping salary of US$40 million a year. The Argentina’s move sparked speculation that four-time Ballon d’Or winner Ronaldo and record England goalscorer Rooney could follow.
Instead came the official crackdown on large transfers. President Xi Jinping had called for China to become one of the game’s superpowers but if the clubs’ big-business backers thought that gargantuan transfer sums would curry favour with him, they were misguided.
In early January, the Chinese FA duly announced caps on transfer fees and wages and reduced the number of foreigners allowed in match-day squads from four to three. They urged teams to instead direct funds towards boosting domestic talent, with China’s national team languishing at 86th in the world rankings.
Reigning six-time champions Guangzhou Evergrande responded by announcing they would field a Chinese-only squad by 2020, a U-turn after years of success based on big foreign signings.
The surprise curbs left some teams with expensive transfer and wage bills for foreign players they now cannot fit into their match-day squads.
The decision “was hugely unfair on the teams that had already completed their business, and an unexpected bonus for the ones who had not,” Mark Dreyer of China Sports Insider told Agence France-Presse.
Although the Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney moves failed to materialize, and while the Chinese FA clampdown does seem to have stopped some mega-deals in their tracks – with Tianjin Quanjian’s chairman saying the club had dropped bids for Diego Costa, Edinson Cavani, Radamel Falcao and Raul Jimenez as a result – big names signings certainly did not stop in the run up to the 2017 season.
Axel Witsel and Alexandre Pato joined the Chinese Super League for multi-millions, Zhang Chengdong signed for Hebei China Fortune – for a fee reported to be more than US$20 million, making him China’s most expensive homespun player – while one of the biggest big money surprises was out-of-favour Watford striker Odion Ighalo’s US$25 million move to Changchun Yatai, which made him the sixth biggest transfer in Super League history.
Newly promoted Tianjin Quanjian, coached by Fabio Cannavaro, splurged US$20 million for midfielder Witsel from Zenit St Petersburg and about the same amount on former Brazil forward Pato from Villareal.
Such outlays made China the fifth biggest global spenders in football last year, according to a January FIFA report, up from 20th the year before, and although the league only spent a third of the English Premier League’s US$1.4 billion in 2016, it is now comfortably outstripping footballing superpowers such as France and current European champions Portugal.
Tellingly, the US$410 million spent in 2017 beat the US$270 million spent in the Premier League during the same winter window, making the Chinese Super League, for now, the world’s most expensive.